THE scrabble for dominance in sci-fi and fantasy streaming continues to heat up. At the time of writing, Paramount had decided to pull season four of Star Trek: Discovery from Netflix and screen it instead on its own platform; HBO has cancelled one Game of Thrones spin-off to concentrate on another, writing off $30 million in the process; and Amazon Studios’ prequel to The Lord of the Rings, set millennia before the events of The Hobbit, is reputed to cost almost five times as much per season to produce as Game of Thrones.
All of this upheaval in the production of new sci-fi and fantasy has an unexpected benefit for viewers. While the wheels of production slowly turn, channel programmers are turning to historical material to feed our appetite for the genre. For obvious reasons, David Lynch’s 1984 film Dune is streaming on every major service, while on Amazon Prime Video, you can – and absolutely should – find Peter Fleischmann’s 1989 classic, Hard to Be a God. It is a West German-Soviet-French-Swiss co-production based on the 1964 novel of the same name by Soviet sci-fi writers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky.
The story is set in the “Noon Universe”, when humanity has evolved beyond money, crime and warfare to achieve an anarchist techno-utopia. Self-appointed “progressors” cross interstellar space to secretly guide the fate of other, less sophisticated humanoid civilisations.
“Progressors have evolved past their propensity for violence, but have lost the knack of human connection”
Anton, an agent of Earth’s Institute of Experimental History, is sent to spy on the city of Arkanar on a far-flung Earth-like planet that is falling under the sway of Reba, the kingdom’s reactionary first minister. Palace coups, mass executions and a peasant war drive Anton from his initial position of professional indifference, first to depression, drunkenness and despair, then ultimately to a fiery and controversial commitment to Arkanar’s revolution.
It isn’t an expected turn of events, given that progressors like Anton are supposed to have evolved past their propensity for violence. But this isn’t the only problem that comes to light during Anton’s mission. The supposedly advanced humans also seem to have lost the knack of human connection.
Anton, portrayed by Edward Zentara, eventually comes to realise this for himself. “We were able to see everything that was happening in the world,” he tells an Arkanaran companion, breaking his own cover as he does so. “We saw all the misery, but couldn’t feel sympathy any more.”
Anton’s intense and horrifying experiences in Arkanar, where every street and rock outcrop has a dangling corpse as a warning from Reba, don’t only affect him. His mission is being watched from orbit by Earth’s other progressors, who struggle to learn from his example and make up for their shortcomings.
The overall message of the film is a serious one: virtue is something we have to strive for in our lives; goodness doesn’t always come naturally.
Comparable to Lynch’s Dune in its ambition, and far more articulate, Fleischmann’s upbeat but moving Hard to Be a God reminds us that sci-fi cinema in the 1980s set a very high bar indeed. We can only hope that this year’s TV epics and cinema sequels put as much effort into their stories as they do their production design and special effects.
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